Artist in Residence // 5 min Read

Artistic Insider: Q&A with Sheryl Stalnaker

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Mar 15, 2023

Get to Know the Resident Artist

As an artist that focuses on wildlife, nature & landscapes, the Lowcountry undeniably provides an abundance of opportunity for inspiration. If there were any other state, country or continent that you’d like to immerse yourself in artistically for an entire year, where would that be & why?

I have spent time in Montana over the past few years because our son is going to college in Bozeman. I love to paint expansive views of the lowcountry and Montana has similar open expanses, but with mountains and beautiful valleys. I’ve painted smaller works from a few of my reference photos, but would love to paint on location, maybe even some snowy scenes if my thin southern blood could survive the cold. I just won’t be venturing anywhere far off the beaten path where I need to carry bear spray. I also want to go to an olive harvest in Spain or Italy and can envision painting the rolling hills of olive trees.

Was there a defining moment in your life when you realized that you would follow the path of being an artist?

I have loved art since a young age and was always drawing, painting, and taking art classes. Although I didn’t major in art, I took college level art classes. After I graduated and was working in the business world, I borrowed from my 401-K to attend an art workshop in Italy. I was hooked. Shortly after, I vividly remember being in the car on a family road trip when I announced that I was going to be a professional artist. No one was really listening except my mom who said, “well, whatever you put your mind to, you can do.” Thanks, Mom.

The Practice Behind the Art

What is your creative process?

I need visual input for artistic output, so I spend a lot of time observing. I feel strongly that you should paint what you know or what you love. For years, I mostly painted plein air (on location from life). Those experiences trained my eye to know what the effects of different light conditions really look like. Painting from photos alone is always problematic. I now combine plein air painting with studio painting. I always paint something I’ve personally seen or experienced, because I am ultimately trying to capture a feeling instead of a place. I know I’m done when I get that same feeling from the painting. Sometimes I never get there and the painting ends up in quarantine. I also enjoy painting pet portraits where I try to capture the animal’s personality and not just a photo representation. I’ve painted some human portraits over the years, but the texture I use with a palette knife is especially well-suited to painting the textures of fur and feathers.

Is your current medium the original medium that you initially started pursuing?

The first paintings I sold in galleries were in watercolor and then pastel. At the time, I was experimenting and learning different media. I even went through a phase where I was ordering smalti, which is hand cut mosaic tile from Italy, and making mosaics. I eventually switched to oil and have been painting with oils for over 25 years. I like the push and pull of the wet oil paint and versatility of layering.

Do you have materials that you specifically use, or do you tend to use whatever materials are available to you?

I mostly paint using a palette knife, but also use brushes. I have recently started using cold wax medium in my paintings. Palette knife work can create a lot of hard paint edges and I like the way I can get soft edges and layering effects by incorporating cold wax.

Her Inspiration

Do you remember the first time you were inspired by art?

When I was in grade school, I took an art class at a local art museum. It was the first time I was introduced to more advanced art concepts such as drawing techniques, color, value and composition, rather than a craft approach often used when teaching younger kids. I always remember that experience and incorporate advanced design and drawing instruction when teaching, even with youth. I have had several of my younger students go on to pursue design and studio art careers, which has been exciting to follow. My adult students inspire me too, especially when they take a risk to learn something new or when I see a new student get the painting “bug”.

Who are some artists that have influenced your work?

I think scale and texture is very important when viewing art, so I love to visit art museums whenever possible. Many master paintings are huge and much is lost when viewed on the computer or in a photo. Within the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit major art museums in Chicago, NYC, Washington DC and a few others. Two of my favorite museums are the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery, which also includes other genres. Both are more intimate spaces with diverse collections. I am always inspired by the masters’ works and as an artist, I hope to always learn and grow. I love John Singer Sargent’s confident paint handling, color and values. He is most known for his portrait paintings, but also painted wonderful landscapes and seascapes. (The artists in the museum are the ones getting really close to the Sargent paintings, and wondering, “How did he do that?”) I’m a fan of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. These large paintings have to be viewed in person to see the intense color vibration and paint layering. I also love seeing the work of my artist peers and contemporary painters. I am based in Charleston SC and the art community there is both supportive and inspiring.

Has teaching kids workshops helped you further develop your mindset as an artist?

I’ve been teaching kids’ art classes or workshops for around 15 years. Kids always remind me to find the joy in creating and to share that with others. Everyone can enjoy creating art. Students of all ages start an art class with different artistic strengths and weaknesses and varying levels of experience. Some students may have a natural drawing ability, while others may be highly imaginative or good at color mixing. Whereas most kids are naturally open and enthusiastic about art, adults are more likely to come to art class with a little bit of apprehension or anxiety. Teaching kids has reminded me that fostering a relaxed and fun atmosphere is also important for adult classes. Some students may not pursue art further, but taking a class gives them greater appreciation of art processes and improves their visual acuity. I had one student comment that she hadn’t really noticed all the colors in the sky and sunsets until after she took one of my classes. That was a better compliment than having her create a masterpiece and reminded me not to take my own visual world for granted.

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